Jordan Spieth, Texas
The sophomore from Dallas couldn't get his putter working last week while playing in the second stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School at TPC Craig Ranch, missing out on a spot in the final stage by three strokes. That doesn't mean, however, that Longhorn fans can breathe easy about the first-team All-American returning to Austin for the spring semester. On the contrary, while Spieth won't say if he's going to turn pro or will be back playing college golf come January, he has said that he's knows what he's going to do. Considering the entourage that was following him at Craig Ranch, and the Q rating the young gun already seems to have developed, there's a reasonable chance Spieth has already played his last college event.
Regardless of his decision, Spieth's choice raise some interesting issues. Should he surprise most observes and stay for another semester, just how focused will he be on playing in college events? No doubt Spieth would be returning for just one semester, and potentially his mind will already be wandering to post-college life. There are no shortage of stories about top-level players who struggled to finish off their college careers simply because they were already looking ahead to pro life. Might that be an issue for Spieth if he chooses to stay?
Of course, if he chooses to leave, how the Longhorns make up for losing their top returning player from last year's NCAA title team becomes the key question. Coach John Fields' squad played solidly all fall with Spieth in the lineup, although it wasn't the dominating force opponents saw a year ago en route to the national championship. Senior Cody Gribble would need to become a more consistent performer. Freshman Brendan Stone would be asked to come through the way he did in his first college tournament, where he claimed medalist honors at the Carpet Capital Collegiate. And another player from the down further on the roster would need to emerge as a viable fourth/fifth man for Fields. None of these scenarios is unreasonable, but none are guaranteed either.
Honorable mention: Thomas Pieters, Illinois
The NCAA individual champion only played twice this past fall, missing time in the Fighting Illini lineup in order to compete for Belgium in the World Amateur Team Championship. In his lone college starts, he had two top-10 finishes, suggesting that his form remained at the high level that he demonstrated a year ago at Riviera CC. However, will the reduced time with his college team, plus the offseason break, has the potential to slow down the momentum he built over the course of the 2011-12 season. Pieters has the talent to turn things on quickly, but whether he'll do that for certain in the spring remains up in the air.
Tiffany Lua, UCLA
A nagging injury to her left wrist that flared up late in the summer, causing the senior from Rowland Heights, Calif., to withdraw from the U.S. Women's Amateur, kept her sidelined the entire fall semester. The absence of the two-time U.S. Curtis Cup player from the Bruins lineup was one of the explanations for why UCLA, ranked No. 2 in the Golf World/WGCA preseason coaches' poll, finished no better than eighth in any of four fall starts and fell to T-25 in the latest poll, the first time the Bruins weren't ranked in the top 10 since April 2007.
Lua said last week that the wrist is feeling better but it is "not healing as fast as I'd like." She undergoes regular physical therapy to treat the injury and has been hitting roughly 60 balls a day plus some putting and light chipping. "I'm optimistic and hopeful that I'll be able to get back in form for our spring events," she said via Twitter, "so we'll just have to wait and see."
Can she return, and if so can she find her All-American form in time to help UCLA right the ship? Even if her game weren't at 100 percent, Lua's presence be a confidence boost to the rest of Carrie Forsyth's team and would go a long way to help it find the form that allowed the Bruins to win the 2011 NCAA title and claim the No. 1 ranking for most of the 2011-12 season (they return all five starters from last year's team).
Honorable mention: Erica Popson, Tennessee
Speaking of injuries, the senior found herself in a similar situation to Lua a year ago, ultimately having surgery on her left hand during the winter break. She returned to the lineup for the Lady Vols in spring 2012 with so-so results. This fall has had two top-five finishes (T-3 at the Cougar Classic; T-4 at her home event, the Mercedes-Benz Intercollegiate) but also twice finished outside the top 15, performances that would be fine for someone not expected to contend for first-team All-American honors. Can Popson return to her consistent pre-surgery form come spring and if so can she get herself back into discussions for SEC and national player-of-the-year?